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A READER'S JOURNAL:
Inventing the Truth
Annie Dillard, Lewis Thomas, Russell Baker, et al
The Art and Craft of Memoir
Published by Houghton Mifflin/Boston in 1987
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2002
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Frankly I bought this book to read some more of Annie Dillard and got the other writers as a bonus. Russell Baker was my other favorite and Lewis Thomas, well, Zinsser tells us about him in his introductory piece:
[page 29] What a trip Lewis Thomas takes us on! It is a journey of unimaginable length — nothing less than a memoir of life on earth. At the end, however, his thoughts turn back to the collection of cells known as Homo sapiens. "I am," he says, "a member of a fragile species, here only a few moments as evolutionary time is measured, a juvenile species. We are only tentatively set in place, error-prone, at risk of fumbling, in real danger at the moment of leaving behind only a thin layer of our fossils, radioactive at that."
This is Thomas's elegy to the puny human being. How sad. He had more respect for a cell of the human body in his book, Lives of A Cell, than he apparently has for the entire human race! The problems I have with his essay can be handled by deconstructing his statement above, piece by piece. First, his "a member of a fragile species." The presupposition is that humankind is somehow only one species of animal, a weird higher primate which somehow, by random selection, evolved the ability to speak intelligibly. And fragile, too, to top it all off! Fragile, juvenile, error-prone, at risk of fumbling, and leaving behind a paper thin stratus in the Earth of radioactive dust. Can you imagine a bleaker prospect for humanity — not even a plot in Boot Hill with a wooden marker for our collective grave — only a thin layer of radioactive dust from our bones and our culture. And yet Lewis Thomas is true to the science of today when he makes his lugubrious portrayal of where we came from, who we are, and where we are going. True to a science that holds sacred the searing vision of Bacon that confirmable evidence of the sensory world is the hallmark of true science. That vision has gotten us a long way — right into a syllogistic cul-de-sac. Francis Bacon's vision and Newton's sleep have painted science into a corner and the paint has dissolved the floor. To step away from that corner is to fall into oblivion — or into a reality that transcends the crisp breakfast Bacon provided for humanity. As William Blake said when he warned us of the folly of reductionist science:
May God us keep
From single vision,
and Newton's sleep!
Look around you. Does this look like an orphanage to you, this marvelous Earth we inhabit? Well, it must to Thomas or how else could he say that we humans are "tentatively set in place" as though we were placed on the Earth as one might place a waif in an orphanage for a trial run. There was a time when the possibility of nuclear destruction of the Earth seemed to be a real danger as Thomas hints, but nobody "fumbled" because they knew deep down that the football they were carrying was the blue orb of the planet upon which their very material lives depended. That brings us in our deconstruction of Thomas' reductionist view of humanity's legacy, to the "thin layer of fossils" and radioactive dust. His is the dismal view of the materialistic scientist, the atheist thinker, for whom the only artifacts of early human life will be dust in the wind and thin strata in the Earth. In his view, those will be the only things remaining, and even that will disappear without a trace when the beloved planet on which we reside today is vaporized by the nova of our dying Sun in some future time.
Lewis Thomas knows his science and his vision, his single vision, bleak as it is, is true to the core of his science. Compare his vision to that of Rudolf Steiner and see which vision you prefer. In Steiner's view, humans were present before the solar system divided into the Sun, Earth and other planets. Humans came first and in our evolution through the plant and animal kingdoms, we left behind beings who did not evolve so quickly as we strong and robust humans did; those beings we know today as plants and animals. Only in the fourth phase of evolution did the Earth develop mineral forms and begin to create a fossil record, those thin strata Thomas spoke of. We only developed hard physical bodies when Adam, whose name means "hard body," and Eve came into being. No dust remains from those many pre-Adamaic bodies of plants, animals and humans, so Thomas's scientific paradigm has been safe from this heresy of Steiner's, up until now. Rightly understood, humans are the senior citizens, the wise sages of the four mineral, plant, animal, and human kingdoms — we have been around the longest, and each individual human being has something no animal, even the highest primate, can claim: an individual Ego, an "I am", an immortal spirit.
In this current time, the beginning of the new Third Millennium, we are faced with the hubris of single vision and Newton's sleep as Blake poetically and rightly labeled the legacy of Francis Bacon. His reductionist science survives in our midst. It has made great and important strides during our progressive descent into materialism. Our challenge is to understand the world with the dual vision of Bacon and Steiner, to acquire a new binocular vision that will allow to see the advances of science in a new perspective, to allow us to stride confidently into the future, a future in which every moral deed acts as a foundation stone for the future of humankind. Our destiny is the stars, but it will not be in some technological star ship, but rather in an individual conveyance that science cannot locate on its radar screen using its single vision. We seek the stars, not in the Starship Enterprise, but in the Starship IAM in which we are each the Captain of our destiny. You, as the possessor of such a conveyance, may choose to pilot it or ignore it in its space dock. The choice is yours. Your future is in your hands. Choose carefully.
Russell Baker tickled me right away with this next quote. We have a grandson who is an only child and he talks constantly.
[page 34] When you're the only pea in the pod, your parents are likely to get you confused with the Hope Diamond. And that encourages you to talk too much.
If you're going to be a writer, talking too much could short-circuit your career, he says. That's why he was glad to be born into a large family — he necessarily had to spent a lot of time listening instead of talking. My family was almost as big as his and I know very well the drill. With all those aunts and uncles around, you don't get much air time.
Annie Dillard was working on a memoir called An American Childhood when the Book- of-the-Month Club, Inc. put these lectures together in 1986. In a phrase that would make any writer chuckle, she says, ". . . any chronology of my days would make very dull reading — I've spent about thirty years behind either a book or a desk." In her memoir of her growing up in Pittsburgh, focused on "waking up" in a way that resonated with my own experience as a young boy.
[page 58, 59] So I put in the moment of waking up and noticing that you've been put down in a world that's already under way. The rushing of time wakes : you play along mindless and eternal on the kitchen floor, and time streams in full flood beside you on the floor. It rages inside you, down its swollen banks, and when it wakes you you're so startled that you fall in. When you wake up, you notice that you're here.
She used to caution young writers that "while literature is an art, it's not a martial art" and that "Writing in the first person can trap the writer into airing grievances."
[page 69] . . . the pages of a short story or a novel are no place to defend yourself from an attack, real or imagined, and no place from which to launch an attack, particularly an attack against the very people who painstakingly reared you to your present omniscience.
What I like about Annie Dillard's writing is that she writes nonfiction. I write mostly non-fiction and I read mostly nonfiction. If you read a lot of nonfiction, you develop a palate for well-written nonfiction. If you wish to write nonfiction, read the best nonfiction like the London Review of Books. Once you have developed a taste for well written nonfiction, you can tell when you have written it yourself.
[page 72] Let me put in a word now for a misunderstood genre: literary nonfiction. It's interesting to me because I try to write it and because I respect the art of it very much.
While other literary genres are shrinking, literary nonfiction rages on as strong as ever. "Poetry," she says, "has purified itself right out of the ballpark." So she was sad when she gave up poetry after studying its forms for fifteen years, but then she discovered that she could do wonders in the context of writing nonfiction using the figurative language and forms of poetry. Read her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek or Teaching a Stone to Talk and you'll poetic leaps of phrase jumping out the books at you everywhere such as this one from page 12 of PATC: "I am the arrow shaft, carved along my length by unexpected lights and gashes from the very sky, and this book is the straying trail of blood."
[page 75] The range of rhythms in prose is larger and grander than it is in poetry, and it can handle discursive ideas and plain information as well as character and story. It can do everything. I felt as though I had switched from a single reed instrument to a full orchestra.
She is a powerful writer because she loves language and she likes sentences. "I don't know. Do you like sentences?" she asked a young man who asked her if he could be a writer. She likes sentences.
[page 75] It's a privilege to muck about in sentences all morning.
If you don't like sentences, you won't like mucking about in sentences all morning as you re-shape a piece you wrote the night before. Does it communicate what you want to communicate? Does it do so without a misused or extraneous word? Does it flow off the tongue? Will you be able understand it three weeks from now when you read it again? Any no answer, and it's muck-about time again.
Toni Morrison in her piece on memoir talks about her genre which is fiction. "Fiction," she says, "is distinct from fact." Distinct from "what really happened." Then she gives us her take on literary nonfiction:
[page 112] By contrast, the scholarship of the biographer and the literary critic seems to us only trustworthy when the events of fiction can be traced to some publicly verifiable fact. It's the research of the "Oh, yes, this is where he or she got it from," school, which gets its own credibility from excavating the credibility of the sources of the imagination, not the nature of the imagination.
It seems to me that the task of establishing the credibility of the sources of the imagination can only be done for work that is kitsch and not real art. The former is the realm of the replicated imagination and thus is amenable to locating its source. The latter is the realm of the original imagination and depends upon the nature of the imagination which is limitless.
Would you like to write a memoir? The bibliography at the end gives a list of books each of the authors of this books essays on writing memoirs consulted or read before they wrote their memoirs. Read some of these first person narratives and get a flavor for the genre. Several of my favorites appeared on the list, Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Wind, Sand, and Stars, and Henry David Thoreau's Journal, Vol 1 and Vol 2.
Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne
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